On July 20, when Warner Bros. announced that “Tenet” temporarily renounced its claim on the release calendar, it created a job opening: In the long-awaited return to theaters, which major film will serve as the canary in the coal mine? Will it be “Mulan,” currently slated for August 21?
Given the strange times we live in, it’s still possible that “Mulan” could move and “Tenet” could still serve in that role. However, we’re betting that “Mulan” will take on that mantle — as long as China agrees.
China Takes Precedence
It’s always a gamble to assume a U.S. studio film will be released in China; the central agency usually confirms close to the release date. Because COVID-19 hit China at the start of the year, with theaters shutting down by late January, it never saw a confirmed date.
Securing China’s participation is essential. At $200 million, “Mulan” has the highest budget of any live-action Disney remake, and questions surround how much business could be curtailed elsewhere.
Among previous Disney live-action remakes, “The Jungle Book” scored best in China, grossing $150 million, or about one sixth of the worldwide take. “Kung Fu Panda 3” did even better with $154 million, which represented 30 percent of that film’s haul. (It opened for the New Year’s holiday, the prime date in the country, a week before the U.S.).
For China, choosing which films will play is both a political and economic decision. Approvals usually go to those films that score big grosses, and “Mulan” should meet that mark. It’s based on a Chinese legend and stars major local star Liu Yufei.
Disney took care to adapt “Mulan” to meet Chinese expectations, including a bevy of consultants and test screenings. However, “Mulan” may now face an unusually complex and sticky set of political circumstances. On July 21, the State Department unexpectedly shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston; on July 22, a source told Reuters that Beijing could shut down the U.S. consulate in Wuhan in retaliation.
None of this means that China will ban “Mulan,” but it does make the film a potential target if China wanted to find a splashy outlet to express its dismay. And, if China has approved the film’s release, Disney may be more likely to take the bird in hand rather than push the date and risk running afoul of escalating tensions.
Of course, the Chinese government can be capricious even in the best of times. “Mulan” could face a backlog of top homegrown films, or there could be unforeseen objections to the final version. Disney executives will watch China grosses closely this weekend to gauge the performance of “Dolittle” and “Bloodshot” — the first new films in the reopened theaters. They could tell Disney execs if the country is to throw off a strong gross.
If “Mulan” Must Delay, It’s Not Damaged Goods
The mystery of “Tenet” creates a huge incentive for many moviegoers to see it first, before they can hear spoilers. As a remake, “Mulan” doesn’t have that sense of discovery. That makes it far less important to be available everywhere at the same time. And for that matter, the film did premiere in Hollywood March 9 and top critics saw it (with their reviews now headed for an all-time embargo record).
Schools (Mostly) Reopen Worldwide in September
Most countries have done a better job than the U.S. in flattening the curve and if “Mulan” can keep the August 24 date it will get in under the summer-vacation wire. That should hold strong appeal for Disney.
“Mulan” Could Be Much-Needed Good News
Beyond movies, Disney has other business entities under siege including cruises and theme parks. It will embrace anything that looks like normalcy. So while sticking with “Mulan” on August 21 would be a risk, going first with maximum seating in multiple auditoriums — even with restrictions — might elevate its gross. It also might be able to leverage the pent-up demand from family audiences desperate to get out of the house.
Among premium VOD films, “Trolls World Tour” stood out. Might the same be true for an in theater experience? Again, no one knows. But it could be a factor in deciding to go.
Disney Wants to Help Theaters
“Mulan” could be a prime candidate for Disney+ streaming. The interest might might rank with “Hamilton” as an incentive to new subscribers, theoretically enough to justify the loss of other revenue. However, Disney is also the worldwide box-office leader that has a string of very expensive films ready to go and still set for production — and this studio needs theaters more than any other company. To bet all on Disney+ would be suicidal, especially since streaming and VOD are far more advanced in the U.S. than abroad.
Even more than other studios, it has a stake in theater survival. The best way to guarantee that might be to risk going with “Mulan,” and sooner rather than later.